Painting for Understanding: Mindy Bielas Inspired by the Old Testament

Painting for Understanding: Mindy Bielas Inspired by the Old Testament

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Published:
September 8, 2015

Attendees of the Spectrum UltraViolet Arts Festival September 12 and 13 will see Mindy Bielas' paintings of biblical women; in this interview, she talks about how she uses her art in her academic work, as well as to help process social issues she is struggling with.

Question: You are a part of our UltraViolet Arts Festival September 12 and 13. What can attendees expect to see from you at the festival?

Answer: Attendees can expect to see my collection of art relating to the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. So far, this specific collection is of female figures, focusing on biblical stories I think are too often misinterpreted or ignored. 

I started off painting to process personal experiences, and so now, even though my artwork is more of an academic project, I still use it to process concerns and social issues I'm struggling with. 

That is to say, the art you can expect to see is just as biographical as it is an academic or intellectual statement.

You are a Master of Arts student at Claremont School of Theology, focusing on the Hebrew Bible and Feminist Theory. Why do you paint these female figures, in addition to your papers and research?

For two reasons: one is more personal and the other academic. First, I paint in order to understand what I think and the psychological reasons for my perspective and/or objective. Often a biblical story will catch my attention but I do not know why it speaks to me or what I want to say about it until I have painted. 

The second reason I paint is because I have found that art is a great bridge between the academy and everyone else. Whereas an academic paper or presentation often flies over the heads of my non-academic friends and family, artistic interpretation is understood (and often appreciated) to some degree by all. 

What do you think we can learn from women in the Hebrew Bible? Why were these women focused on so little in the Bible, and why do you think we should learn all we can about them?

I think we can learn much about society and human behavior from both male and female characters in the Hebrew Bible. Since the Church is working with humans in society, any information gleaned can be helpful, especially if said Church would like to make an impact on society. 

That said, there are centuries upon centuries of male-centric interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, and only very recently have female voices been heard and published. This means that most Hebrew Bible stories have been read with the male characters in mind — because we tend to focus on that which is like us — for most of interpretive history. When interpreters read stories with the female characters in mind, the whole story can take on a different meaning and communicate new and exciting messages. 

For example, I am currently studying the Tamar of Genesis (chapter 38). When interpreted in line with traditional interpretations, Judah is an unjust father-in-law while Tamar is a sneaky and manipulative woman. Feminist scholars have shown that Tamar had little resources and so any manipulative behavior would have been her only means for survival, legitimizing Tamar's behavior in the same way male characters' questionable behavior is very often legitimized by traditional scholarship. However, if one reads the story from Tamar's perspective, she does not seem to have any scheme prepared and is instead waiting at the city gate (verse 14), ready to be returned to her rightful place (Judah's household), by the man who is supposed to have her best interest in mind (Judah). Judah sees what he wants to see — a prostitute — and Tamar goes along with it, using Judah's self-deception and poor judgement for her benefit once it is clear he has no intention of treating her justly. Changing one’s interpretive focus from Judah to Tamar provides an almost completely different understanding of both characters. The meaning likewise changes from a story about a manipulative woman to one about power and the misuse of power to protect unjust self-interests. 

By studying female characters from the Hebrew Bible we gain new insight, not just on the text and the lesson or message we can take from them, but also on our personal and communal biases. If we can become a more self-aware community, our ability to do good in the world will skyrocket. 

So you believe that the Old Testament is really relevant to our lives today?

The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is relevant because much of Protestant theology, social theory, and communal values have been informed by an emphasis on and particular interpretation of the Bible. 

Seventh-day Adventists are no different, and even participated in one of the many "back to the Bible" movements that have occurred during Protestant history. Like many Protestant groups, historical Seventh-day Adventists wanted to emphasize parts of the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to ground themselves in the whole Bible, instead of just the more popular Christian Bible, or New Testament. For this reason, a particular perspective of the Hebrew Bible has informed Seventh-day Adventist thought in so many ways. This bias is one we inherit, and if we are not critically aware of this bias, we will be blind to its continued affect on our perspectives of ourselves, our relationships, and our communities. If we want to be a relevant community, we need to reassess our biases and reconstruct what is no longer serving us or our community. 

What are some of the most important things you have learned so far at Claremont? What do you like most about your studies? When will you finish? What will you do next?

The most important thing I have learned at Claremont School of Theology is to be more aware of and respectful of other people's religious traditions. CST's student body is very religiously diverse. Learning about other people's traditions in classrooms and books does not properly prepare you to be in a diverse community. Yet, there are many gracious students who have gently brought to my attention times when I am not remembering their time of worship, their important dietary restrictions, or when a particular view has potentially xenophobic implications. I am very grateful to have their support as I practice becoming more aware and respectful. 

My favorite part of my studies is academic debating, arguing over the most accurate meaning of a Hebrew word or for one feminist perspective over another. But it isn't just the banter, it is the practicing of newly informed ideas that really gets me excited. And everyone knows it is an academic practice, so usually nothing is taken personally.

I will finish this degree in May. I am not positive what I will do next. I have been in school for the past 21 years (if you include academy and my duplicated year of kindergarten), so I think I might take a break. If I do, I will probably get a non-profit job and attend a couple art classes at a community college. If I decide to blaze on, I will probably start a PhD in mythology. I am interested to see how I might apply some of the ideas I've been developing with the Hebrew Bible to other sacred stories. The ultimate goal would be to assess how more secular stories, like fairy tales and comic books, inform our society as a whole. We will see. 

You studied religion and theology at La Sierra University, both undergrad and graduate school, and also pastored for a while at Vallejo Drive Adventist Church. Did you intend to work full-time as an Adventist pastor? Do you see that in your future yet?

I graduated from La Sierra in 2012 (undergrad) and 2013 (postgrad). I pastored at Vallejo Drive Adventist Church for a year and a half, starting in July of 2012. I was interested in pastoral work when I was in high school and my first year or so of college and even did a pastoral internship at Redlands Adventist Church. However, I was not intending to pastor when Pastor Todd Leonard found me and invited me to Vallejo Drive. But I very much enjoyed my experience, Vallejo Drive was the perfect place to experience pastoral work and Todd was the most amazing mentor. While I am still interested in ministry in some form, I don't think that will look like pastoring in the future. I am currently more concerned with the academic biblical research that informs pastors. But who knows — I didn't intend to be a pastor in 2012 either. 

How did you get started painting? Have you had any commercial success as an artist? Where has your work been seen?

I started painting in 2011-12 to deal with some "ugly" feelings. I was very frustrated, angry and in pain, and like many in these sorts of circumstances, keenly felt the social pressure to act like everything was fine even though it wasn't. Painting was a time and space where I could be honest with myself and allow myself to process my experiences and the resulting emotions. It wasn't until late 2013 that I realized I could use my practice of painting to process my thoughts and feelings concerning my academic work. I painted for a class presentation, and that went so well I started incorporating my artwork in as much academic work as possible.

I don't know if you would call it commercial success, but I have sold much of the more academically inclined artwork I've created and have started succeeding in selling prints. I have shown my work at an art show at Claremont Graduate University, the Adventist Society of Religious Studies Conference, American Academy of Religion Conference, La Sierra University's Women's Resource Center, many church-related small groups, and soon at the UltraViolet Arts Festival. 

One of my favorite developments so far is the workshops I've started giving, where I teach my methodology for using art as a tool for interpreting the Bible, as well as to better understand our relationships to sacred stories. Everyone gets to pick their own story to focus on, and brainstorm how they can transform their perspectives into an image. Then we bring out the painting supplies and get to work. Afterwards we come together and share our paintings, our artistic process, and something we learned about ourselves. It is a very rewarding experience every time.

How do you feel women are treated in the Adventist church? How do we compare to other churches?

This is a tough question to answer, partly because every community is different, but also because this is such a charged subject. I think women are treated very well when they fit the roles their community has allowed them. However, I think there is way too much demonization, delegitimization, and scapegoating involved when a woman decides to act on her desire to practice a different role. This is of course is related to the ordination debates, but also so much more. And to some degree this happens to men in Adventist churches as well, but I would argue that the role options for women and other-gendered people are more limited than those options given to men in the community. While I think it is essential that we address issues around gender, I think it is equally important that the Adventist Church start better addressing issues around sexuality, race, class, age, ability, and more. 

Every community, no matter the denomination, has its own struggles, and there are plenty of churches experiencing similar growing pains as the Adventist Church is today. Nevertheless, I think the Unitarian Universalist Church is doing a pretty good job of being socially aware and sensitive. Perhaps the Adventist Church could take some notes from their communities. 

How do you think the role of women in our church will change during your lifetime?

Another tough question. I assume this question is more directly referencing our ordination debates. I think there will be different degrees of change for different communities depending on what the socially active of that community are willing to take a stand on and what the rest of the community is willing to address and adjust to. 

I think there will be some churches where the presence of ordained female pastors will be no big deal because they have moved on to other pressing social issues, while other churches will pride themselves is being more "authentic," or "traditional," or whatever word they use to describe their stance on minimal change.

What advice would you have for any aspiring Adventist artist?

Go for it! Do it! Don't let your fears of failure or of unbridled success bind you. Don't let others' perspectives limit the issues or ideas you wish to communicate. Don't ever take critique personally; instead use what you can and let the rest fall out of your brain. And most importantly be honest with yourself and create from the deepest parts of your soul. 

See more of Mindy Bielas' art at her website mindypaints.weebly.com. Read her previous articles for Spectrum: The Absent and Misrepresented Women of my Adolescence and Waiting for Jesus. . . I Mean Superman

Find more information and register for the Spectrum UltraViolet Arts festival here.

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